Exit Strategies for Alaskan Wine Bars

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From Electric Lit:

Leigh Newman is a queen of detail. Not motes-in-the-air kind of details (though I’m sure she could describe a dust cloud and make it sparkle like rubies and emeralds), but the assemblage-of-particularities-and-peculiarities sorts of details that jump off the page and burrow into your brain. The first we encounter in “Valley of the Moon” is on the city bus, the delightfully (and truly) named People Mover of Anchorage. The narrator’s erstwhile neighbor “smells of poop and woodsmoke and sticky raspberry brandy.” Not a great list of smells, I’ll admit, but evocative, both of the smeller and the smelled—and important for our purposes. When we learn the smeller, our viscerally self-aware and self-deprecating narrator, Becca, is an experienced drinker (riding the bus because of her revoked license, owing to a “wet and reckless” the previous year), who’s had to clean up quite a few messes made by herself and her mother, suddenly the more subtle corners of that description billow out from a one-liner into something with a second and third dimension.

That variety of slight and slanted character development, her elegant and unsettling world-building, shows up again and again across “Valley of the Moon.” The next scene opens in Anchorage’s version of a schmancy wine bar, which was in a former life a dentist’s office and still has that vibe; the entry hall is lined in rent-a-plants and the bar shares a bathroom (the key tethered by a piece of forget-me-not driftwood) with a podiatrist’s office. Not the most ambiance, but perhaps the most this corner of the world, known for many things but not its French bistros, can offer. Here two sisters—one with a do-not-serve on her ID, one with a hugely pregnant belly—order a bottle of very expensive wine from the world’s most (rightly) skeptical waitress. From there, decades of lived experience, resentment and disaster and love, pour out of Becca, the glass of red and dozen raw oysters (“hunks of dead lung on a shell,” for the record) and the waitress’s scar all acting a bit madeleine-ish.

It’s a creeping suspicion at first, that there’s some architecture and intention to these wild, wily details, the weave of present and past, but as time and the story march on, you come to realize that while Newman’s descriptions may be presented casually, often seeming to be off-handed oh-by-the-ways, they are the opposite of chockablock. You’ll have to get to the end of “Valley of the Moon” to understand why it’s absolutely elegant, and a bit heartbreaking, that the story starts on public transit and that these sisters reunite in a French-ish bar, but Newman’s route through strange smells and vivid memories and delicately rendered disaster is worth every turn.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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